THE LEADING MEN: Tony Nominees Billy Porter and Stark Sands Kick Up Their Heels in Broadway's Kinky Boots

By Michael Gioia
May 6, 2013

Billy Porter and Stark Sands, the leading men at the heart of Broadway's Kinky Boots, each earned a 2013 Tony Award nomination for his performance. Playbill catches up with the nominees.



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SEX IN HIS HEEL

Long-time stage actor Billy Porter takes on the role of a lifetime in the new Cyndi Lauper-Harvey Fierstein Broadway musical Kinky Boots, which recently earned 13 Tony Award nominations, the most of any production in the 2012-13 season. Porter, who has previously been seen in featured roles on Broadway in Miss Saigon, Five Guys Named Moe, Grease and Smokey Joe's Café, takes center stage in Kinky, where he shares top billing with co-star Stark Sands. Tony-nominated Best Leading Actor Porter is being recognized for his remarkable femininity, sassy comic timing and downright sexy strut. The Broadway favorite plays Lola, the passionate and fabulous drag queen who encounters straight-laced Charlie Price and helps him by creating and designing the show's "title character" (if you will) — Kinky Boots. We chatted with Porter at the May 1 Tony nominations press junket, where he talked about a role that he holds very close to his heart.

Porter in Kinky Boots.
photo by Matthew Murphy

Stark Sands told me that he's rooting for you and there is no competitiveness. Are you rooting for him?
BP: There's nothing competitive. Dare I say that he's Ricky Ricardo to my Lucy. It's his steadiness… He's my rock. If he was not as present, and if his performance was not as solid and ego-free as it is, I would not be able to be the Tasmanian devil that I'm required to be every night. [Laughs.]

You guys have great chemistry. When you yell back and forth at each other, it's heartbreaking. Tell me about working together so closely and these moments that you share.
BP: Well, it's a "bromance." You know, the story is a "bromance" between two unlikely people who have daddy issues, and one of them happens to wear a dress. We watch these two men platonically fall in love, and, just like in any loving relationship, when there is turmoil, it's heartbreaking.

Where did you begin to create the character of Lola?
BP: I began with myself. I've lived a life as an African-American gay, out, Christian man for my entire life. I know what it feels to be on the outside. I know what it feels like to be denigrated. I know what it feels like to have people say that my life and what I represent is invalid. So, you know, I started there and kept going.

Porter and Stark Sands
Photo by Matthew Murphy

Tell me about your physicality, too. I'm interested in how Billy became Lola.
BP: Hanging out at gay bars and seeing drag queens, I always thought to myself, over the years, that if I was ever presented with the possibility of playing [a role like this], my goal would be to go for realness — for real femininity — so that's where I started. I wanted to go for full-on realness, and that's what I'm aiming for.

This story must really strike a chord with you. Are there moments in the show that catch you off guard each night, and you think to yourself, "This resonates with me, Billy"?
BP: "I'm Not My Father's Son" is the ballad in the first act in the bathroom where Stark's character and my character come together for the first time and realize that we're the same — emotionally. You know, my relationship with my father — both of my fathers, my stepfather and my biological father — were strained, at best, when they were alive, so that's [a moment] every night that I sort of live in. I try to live in a space that honors them and honors the effect that they've had on my life in teaching me how to be human and in teaching me how to love myself and teaching me about forgiveness.

Porter and Daniel Stewart Sherman in Kinky Boots.
photo by Matthew Murphy

Tell me about your 11-o'clock number in the second act, "Hold Me In Your Heart." Are you completely drained by the end of the show?
BP: No, it's interesting… Everybody is interested in my energy level. We, as artists, dream for roles and characters and work that will come along that support you creatively, emotionally, financially — all of those things — and that's what this show is for me. So no, I'm not drained, I'm not tired. I'm completely energized, and I love every second of it. I mean, tired — regular tired? Yeah. Eight shows a week is tiring, but not in a sense of, "I'm so exhausted, I couldn't possibly…" It's not that at all.

Stark Sands and Annaleigh Ashford told me about the Kinky Boots fan who had your signature tattooed on his body…
BP: He just showed us last night. He was really touched by the message of the show, which is, "You change the world when you change your mind." It's about acceptance. He has been following, actually, my trajectory as an out, gay man, actor in the world, and he was just really touched by it.

Stark Sands
Photo by Monica Simoes

A STARK CONTRAST

Stark Sands received his second Tony Award nomination April 30. The actor, who was previously nominated for Journey's End, earned his first Leading Actor in a Musical nomination for his performance as Charlie Price in Kinky Boots and finds himself alongside co-star Billy Porter in the same category for the 2013 Tonys. Although the actors will go toe to toe for Broadway's biggest prize, Sands admitted that he's been rooting for Porter all along. The two-time Tony nominee, who has also been seen on Broadway in American Idiot, wasn't giving himself enough credit at the May 1 Tony Awards press junket. His dynamic performance in the new Broadway musical is parallel with Porter's. His voice soars on Lauper's "The Soul of a Man," and his argumentative confrontations with Porter on stage at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre burn right through the character of Lola. Also, who could resist the dashing leading man when he takes his bow in a pair of red leather "Kinky Boots"?

Congratulations on your Tony nomination! How excited are you?
SS: I'm pretty excited. I'm flabbergasted, you know. I was rooting for my co-star, Billy Porter, and some other performances that I've seen this season, so when they said my name, I kind of blacked out a little bit. My wife started running around the room crying and screaming, and it's just an absolute honor — just to be recognized at all — especially in a season like this, where there are so many commendable performances that, I think, deserve to be nominated. I am honored.

How does it feel to be up against your co-star, Billy Poter? Is there a bit of competitiveness?
SS: I've been campaigning for Billy Porter since Chicago for this, and I'm not going to stop now. There's no competitiveness at all. I am telling everyone to vote for Billy because I think he deserves it. I couldn't do the show without him, and my job — as I've seen it — has been to facilitate this story and to assist Billy and help him give a fabulous performance. So I feel like I've been doing my job, and I'm going to keep doing it.

Sands in Kinky Boots.
photo by Matthew Murphy

You and Billy share that touching moment in the show, "I'm Not My Father's Son." What was that like last night following the announcement of the Tony nominations?
SS: The whole show was incredible last night because, obviously, we're riding a wave — not just me and Billy. It's Annaleigh Ashford and [choreographer] Jerry Mitchell and [book writer] Harvey Fierstein and [composer-lyricist] Cyndi Lauper and [scenic designer] David Rockwell and [costume designer] Gregg Barnes, [lighting designer] Kenny Posner, [sound designer] John Schivers — everybody that conceivably could have been nominated got nominated, so everybody was excited. And the audience was excited, too — they could feel it. It was just on another level last night. I was running on fumes a little bit, in a way, because I'd been up all morning, and I didn't get a nap, but it was great. Specifically for that moment — for me and Billy — it [was] the one part of the show where our director didn't… He kept his hands off of it. When we first staged it a year-and-a-half ago, he told us, "You guys do whatever you want for this. Move when you want to move. Stand when you want to stand. Sit when you want to sit. I just want to see what happens." And, the way that we did it the first time is the way that it stayed — in terms of physical movement. And, he's never given us any overarching notes about it because it's honest, and it's been honest from the beginning.

Sands with Annaleigh Ashford
Photo by Matthew Murphy

You have great chemistry with Billy Porter throughout the whole show. What is it like going on that journey with him? Emotionally exhausting?
SS: It is. [Laughs.] It is, but it's rewarding. I get to spend myself on stage in a lot of different directions. He's a joy to work with. I learn something form Billy every day, and he's a naturally playful performer, and I like to act in that same style. I might have to say the same words every night, but if I can find an interesting new way to say them that will keep them fresh for me, it's more fun, and I think it's more interesting for the audience, too.

What excites me is that a lot of the Tony-nominated songwriters are first-time Broadway composers. What is it like getting to sing Cyndi Lauper's score? Was she present throughout the process?
SS: She was there all the time, every day — very hands on, not just with the singers, but with the band, with everything. She has quite an ear, and she knows what she's doing. It's incredible to have Cyndi Lauper giving me vocal notes and a 45-minute vocal lesson every once in a while, all in the interest of making the show a better show. It's a real honor.

Sands on opening night
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

[SPOILER!] Tell me about coming out at the end of the show in those fabulous kinky boots.
SS: You're giving away the ending! [Laughs.] I'm just kidding. Coming out in the kinky boots at the end is a joy because I think it's unexpected for some people, [although] I think most people have figured it out. It's fun. These boots were tailor made for my feet and my legs in Italy and by LaDuca [Dance Shoes] — it was a collaboration — so they don't hurt. They're not pinching my toes. They are perfectly sculpted for me. I use different muscles than I normally do when I'm walking, but I've learned how to walk — and I'm going to knock on wood, so I don't jinx myself. The wobbling that I'm doing is, now at this point, mostly manufactured. It's just fun.

Was your wife so proud of you when you came out strutting in heels at the end of the show?
SS: [Laughs.] Yes! Yes, she says that I walk in heels better than she does. She's really tall, so she doesn't usually wear heels that much, but I now have an interest in heels and a respect for them, so I've been trying to nudge her in that direction.

Annaleigh Ashford was just telling me about the Kinky Boots fan who got the show's logo tattooed on the side of his body.
SS: It's not just the logo — the "K" — but he asked for my permission last week: "Stark, I want to ask your permission to get your signature tattooed on my body." I [said], "Okay." I didn't know if he was serious or not. And, it's me, Billy and Annaleigh. The signature that I signed on his Playbill, he had somebody tattoo it onto his body — mine, Billy's and Annaleigh's.

(Playbill.com staff writer Michael Gioia's work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.)

Playbill Video interviews the Kinky Boots Tony Award nominees: